With this epic, Martin Scorsese returned to the world of tough-talking Italian-American hoods featured in Mean Streets (1973), following 30 years in the lives of a group of neighbourhood crooks.
From hanging around the taxi rank, punk kid Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) progresses to hijacking, airport robberies, extortion, grievous bodily harm, drug dealing and, finally, informing.
Along the way, he gets a Jewish wife (Lorraine Bracco) who, unlike the Corleone women, finds it impossible to keep out of the wholesale sleaze that goes along with her husband’s way of life.
More important, of course, are Henry’s close male relationships: with Jimmy (Robert De Niro), a coolly violent heist man, and Tommy (Joe Pesci), an unstable psychopath with hopes of getting “made”.
In the end, Hill is turned by the FBI and informs on his few surviving friends, winding up condemned to a Federal Witness Protection limbo where “if you ask for Spaghetti Bolognese, they give you noodles with meatballs”.
Drawn from co-writer Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book Wiseguy, this is more matter-of-fact in its insider chattiness than the mythmaking The Godfather (1972).
Indeed, Goodfellas is almost a companion piece to the comical Married To The Mob (1988) as it observes the manners and fashions of the organised crime world.
Underlaid by a constant barrage of cunningly selected pop singles, from Tony Bennett to Phil Spector to Sid Vicious, this panorama of illegal America stays with a group of wholly repulsive, increasingly corrupt people for nearly two-and-a-half hours but never loses its fascination.
De Niro, underplaying in a secondary role, is quietly chilling as the repressed but unpredictable robber who sometimes seems to think he’ll only be safe once he has killed everyone he knows.
However, the show-off monster is Pesci, who plays the maniacal Tommy as a homicidal Lou Costello, segueing instantly from foul-mouthed rat-tat-tat wisecrack routines into mortifying threats or slap-in-the-face atrocities.
There are too many great moments to list: Tommy’s “You think I’m funny?” tirade in the restaurant (all improvised); Jimmy sitting at a bar, not moving a muscle and yet somehow managing to convey with still, gimlet eyes that by the end of the slow zoom, he’s decided to execute Morrie (Chuck Low); the breathtaking Steadicam trip through a nightclub’s kitchens (unplanned – Scorsese couldn’t get permission to go in the front way so devised the incredible sequence on the fly).
Without moralising, the film manages to convey the dead-end horrors of a life not just outside the law but outside all possible law.
Ray Liotta died in his sleep on 26 May 2022, aged 67.
Robert De Niro
Samuel L Jackson